fast-and-furious-hi-resAfter three high-octane rides on the street racing scene, the fourth film in the “The Fast and the Furious” series features a departure from the flashy, overblown colors, obvious CGI-enhancement, and at times over-the-top stunts of the previous two films. With “Fast & Furious” the series returns to its roots with a grittier, more realistic leaning tone and reunites the primary players from the original film’s cast of gearheads for more high speed mayhem.

“Fast & Furious” finds Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) continuing his lawless ways in the Dominican Republic alongside his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and a new crew of velocity addicted miscreants. When the law begins to close in on Dom and his crew, difficult choices are made, plans are put into motion, and a life is lost. All of this forces Dom to return to his native Los Angeles on a quest for answers and to ultimately deal with those responsible. While back in town, Dom is reunited, albeit begrudgingly, with his former friend Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), who once again finds he is torn between doing what he desires most or following the letter of the law he’s sworn to uphold.

With the slightly weaker feel of the previous two films in the series, I was kind of unsure of how good this fourth attempt would prove to be, regardless of the fact that many of the original film’s cast members were reprising their roles eight years later. After seeing “Fast & Furious” over the weekend, I can honestly say that any misgivings I had regarding the film were easily blown away by the sheer entertainment value and superiority exuded by this film over anything included in the previous two films.

Besides the original film’s primary cast returning to the series that made them stars, the writer and director duo of Chris Morgan and Justin Lin (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) make their return to the series with a much more polished final product than what had been featured in their previous effort. The screenplay is a much more complex work than one may expect from this type of movie. Screenwriter Chris Morgan ups the stakes for all the players, delivering several twists along the way, and some very sharply written dialogue, all of which makes for a thoroughly entertaining ride from start to finish. The story really seems to focus on resolving storylines begun in the first movie, and creating a stronger link between all of the other movies in the series, especially “Tokyo Drift” (which has always felt a little bit like an outcast in the franchise). As a fan of the series, I believe that this film’s more mature storyline and well-written dialogue showcases the time and effort that Chris Morgan put into this film, and the work definitely pays off by rewarding longtime fans of the franchise by interconnecting each of the films, while not alienating any newcomers.

Director Justin Lin shows an even steadier hand when it came to helming his second effort in the series. Even though Justin proved quite capable in capturing the high speeds and general fast-paced nature of the series with “Tokyo Drift”, his work here is stronger even if it is with a little less flashiness. By approaching the film more in the vein of the original’s look and tone, Lin imbues “Fast & Furious” with a grittier nature that cements its close ties to the aforementioned, along with having the slight feel of an urban crime drama (albeit without the same level of intensity inherent in most of those films). If there are to be any more films in this series, then I believe that the powers-that-be may have found a valuable asset in this director, and one that they should use whenever possible to maintain consistency between the installments (something this series has previously lacked).

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, the cast for this film features many returning members from the original film. Let’s begin with one of the biggest breakout stars of the original, Vin Diesel (“A Man Apart”). In his reprisal as Dom Toretto, Vin gives one of the best performances of his career, if not his best yet (easily rivaling his work in “A Man Apart” or “Find Me Guilty”). In this film, Diesel is given more opportunity to explore Dom, whether it is his passion for the various facets of his life, personal loss, the issue of trust, or merely the unbridled fury that we had only heard mention of in the first film. Here we are presented with a much more layered and developed anti-hero than had been previously established, and one who is more weathered and world-weary from all of the experiences he has endured whether good or bad. If there are still some detractors of Vin’s work out there, then the combination of his movies mentioned above should help convince them to the contrary, so long as they ignore his misfire with the dismal “Babylon A.D.”.

Alongside Vin is Paul Walker as the other main lead for this installment. This film also marks Walker’s second reprisal as the lead in this series, as Paul was the only main cast member to return for the initial sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious”. To be fair, Vin has also appeared in the series three times, although his second appearance was just a cameo in the final moments of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”. But I digress, now back to Paul Walker’s performance as one-time ex-law man turned outlaw turned active FBI agent Brian O’Connor. It’s a rather convoluted series of events that comprise O’Connor’s storyline through the series, but it works. In the first film, Paul gave a fairly solid, if not flawed performance, which he proceeded to follow-up with a decidedly more surfer-esque, flat and stilted performance, replete with more “Yo’s”, “Bro’s”, and “Check it’s” than one would care to count. Paul’s third stint in the series, much like Vin’s return, makes for his best performance of the series, not to mention his entire career. I used to think that he was one of those actors that merely skated by on his looks and onscreen charm, with very little acting talent holding it all together. With his performance here he is much more reserved and believable, even intense at times, to the point that one wonders if there may be hope for Paul’s career as a serious actor yet. Gone are the various surfer boy idioms, replaced by a much more mature character who is still trying desperately to atone for past mistakes.

The final two returning characters are the two important female roles of Mia and Letty (Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez respectively). Both of these characters suffered from very little development in their first outing, a problem that has now been rectified by this film. The character of Mia is given a very emotional arc to go through over the course of the film as she is forced to deal with the return of her former lover and betrayer of her family, Brian O’Connor. Jordana proves with her more developed role and character arc that she has the acting chops necessary to handle more of the story should the occasion call for it, something that future writers of the series may want to take note of should her character make any more return appearances. Michelle Rodriguez has proven in numerous movies and on TV’s “Lost” that she is a very capable actress, but in this series she has yet to really be all that important or necessary for that matter. In the first film she was merely Dom’s girlfriend and not all that interesting beyond that; however, in this story her character is central to the film’s main plotline. I have to admit that while I wasn’t all that enthralled by Michelle’s character in the original film, she definitely proved more interesting in this one, and was much more enjoyable to watch as she really seemed to be having a good time in the role.

Lastly, we have one key newcomer to the franchise. Actor John Ortiz (“Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem”) plays a man named Campos whose job is to find and recruit drivers to smuggle drugs for a very powerful Mexican cartel. I haven’t seen John in any kind of tough guy roles, mostly because I haven’t seen too many movies he’s appeared in, but I have to say he was very convincing in the role. He portrayed the character with a subtle hint of menace, never really overdoing it just keeping an obvious air about him that this guy is not one to be trifled with. While he wasn’t given an incredible amount of screen time, what he is given John makes the most of. John delivers a strong antagonist that could have ended up being just another stock character, but became something a little more developed thanks to his work in the role.

“Fast & Furious” is by far the best of the sequels in the series, and easily rivals the original film, possibly even surpasses it. This is all due to a much tighter and more developed story, the best acting in the entire series, and a much more grounded sense of reality than the previous two films boasted. If you’ve been a fan of the series or have simply become disappointed by the direction it’s taken in the previous sequels, then this is the movie to see as it undoubtedly kicks the franchise back into high gear.

As a side note, it’s important to know that “Fast & Furious” occurs prior to the events shown in the third film, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”.

“Fast & Furious” is rated PG-13 for violence, language, and sexuality.